Beth­le­hem opens up for busi­ness

Eco­nomic hopes were boosted by this week’s Pales­tine In­vest­ment Con­fer­ence

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY BEN LYN­FIELD

THE PALES­TINIAN Author­ity this week at­tempted to defy scep­tics by pre­sent­ing the West Bank as a land of busi­ness op­por­tu­nity dur­ing a three­day in­vest­ment con­fer­ence in Beth­le­hem aimed at giv­ing an in­ter­na­tional boost to the mori­bund econ­omy.

“You don’t have to be crazy” to in­vest in the Pales­tinian private sec­tor, said Mo­hammed Sh­tayyeh, di­rec­tor of the Pales­tinian Eco­nomic Coun­cil for De­vel­op­ment and Re­con­struc­tion.

And this is de­spite World Bank fore­casts of zero eco­nomic growth in the West Bank in real terms dur­ing 2008; the di­vi­sion be­tween Gaza and the West Bank; and PA Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas’s warn­ings that Is­raeli and Pales­tinian ne­go­tia­tors are still far from an agree­ment.

The main fac­tor in the gloomy fore­cast are Is­raeli check­points and move­ment re­stric­tions, which Is­rael says are needed to thwart Pales­tinian at­tacks.

“We don’t deny the fact that we are un­der oc­cu­pa­tion, that there are 612 mil­i­tary check­points, that we can’t reach Jerusalem, that Gaza is un­der siege and that the sit­u­a­tion is un­usual,” Mr Sh­tayyeh said. “But busi­ness it­self is un­usual. There can be busi­ness in very un­usual sit­u­a­tions.

“There are peo­ple who can make money out of war and peo­ple who can make money out of peace and I am sure there are peo­ple who can make money out of our sit­u­a­tion,” he added. He said he ex­pected prop­erty and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions to be the sec- tors that elicited the most in­ter­est at the three-day meet­ing that be­gan on Wed­nes­day, at­tended by hun­dreds of busi­ness­men and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of 15 coun­tries.

Is­raeli for­eign min­istry spokesman Arye Mekel called the con­fer­ence “a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment. We hope it will suc­ceed.”

Khaled Osaily, the mayor of He­bron, said that the projects for which he hoped to elicit in­vest­ment in­cluded an in­dus­trial zone south of the city and He­bron’s first multi-storey car park.

He char­ac­terised the lo­cal econ­omy as be­ing “filled with threats and op­por­tu­ni­ties”. The Pales­tini­ans, he said, can of­fer for­eign in­vestors rel­a­tively cheap salary costs for well-ed­u­cated em­ploy­ees.

“Em­ploy­ing a newly grad­u­ated en­gi­neer will cost less than a quar­ter here com­pared with the US and Europe,” he said, adding that com­pa­nies should think about get­ting a foothold now to be in place when a peace agree­ment with Is­rael is reached.

But Samir Bargh­outhi, di­rec­tor of the Ra­mal­lah-based Arab Cen­tre for Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment, cited re­cent re­ports of Pales­tinian Author­ity pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas threat­en­ing to re­sign within six months and the Is­raeli stric­tures on move­ment of goods and peo­ple as mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to per­suade peo­ple to in­vest.

“Busi­ness­men may come to the con­fer­ence and give prom­ises and good speeches, but when they re­turn home they prob­a­bly will look at the sit­u­a­tion and de­cide it is too dif­fi­cult,” he said. He cited the ex­am­ple of the Qatari- owned Wataniya Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­pany, which has been poised since March 2007 to in­vest $600m (£300m) to be­come the sec­ond Pales­tinian mo­bile-phone com­pany, but has been un­able to launch be­cause of a de­lay in Is­rael grant­ing the fre­quen­cies it needs. Is­raeli of­fi­cials have said there were dif­fer­ences over how much spec­trum to grant the Pales­tini­ans.

The in­ter­na­tional peace­mak­ing quar­tet’s en­voy, Tony Blair, said last week that Is­rael had agreed to grant the fre­quen­cies. But Wataniya CEO Alan Richard­son said he was wait­ing for con­fir­ma­tion of this in writ­ing.

PHOTO: AP

A Pales­tinian in his shop in the De­heisheh refugee camp near Beth­le­hem this week

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